8. Renegotiating the Traditional Reference/Instruction Librarian and Patron Relationship | Readings

Anita R. Walz

This section will be most relevant for librarians or librarians-in-training. Taking on a longer-term role as a consultant or coach requires a paradigm shift regarding the librarian roles. Ultimately, it requires renegotiation of what may be considered a traditional reference/instruction librarian and patron relationship.

Learning Objectives

Learners should be able to:

  • Librarians and future librarians will be able to articulate ways in which a consultative partnership is different than a traditional one-and-done teaching, reference, or short-term consultative relationship.
  • Non-librarian subject matter experts will be able to identify some of the expectations on which they may be asked to operate, and those they may need to navigate in the future in order to form productive working relationships with healthy boundaries among individuals with very different job expectations than their own.


  • Interview a respected, experienced librarian regarding their experiences working as both a reference or instruction librarian, and in ongoing collaborative partnerships with subject matter experts.
    • In comparison, how have their expectations varied?
    • At what point in their career did they begin to differentiate between consultations and partnerships, if they have?
    • What advice might they give a new librarian regarding forming long-term collaborations with subject matter experts?
    • If they have navigated boundary-setting, how have they done this successfully?

Being a consultant or coach is much more of a partnership than a transactional relationship. Rather than one or two-shot instructional sessions on a somewhat predictable schedule or a one-and-done reference interaction, the librarian’s role as a consultant or coach will most likely require iterative consultations, collaborative goal setting, regular checkins, identification of preferred methods for communication, and articulation of clear expectations from both parties. The expectation for a consultative partnership is best established at the start of a consultative or coaching relationship but will need to be revisited throughout the partnership.

Faculty and graduate students consulting with you need to know what they should expect from a librarian in a consultant or coaching role—and such librarians are wise to also articulate what they expect from faculty.

Being a librarian in a consultant or coaching role requires that you:

  • Carry yourself as an equal in the partnership. Even though you are coaching, your collaborator owns their project. They are ultimately responsible for doing the work. The librarian coach or consultant is not the collaborator’s assistant or research intern. While the librarian could help the collaborator with many additional things, the librarian’s role is consultant and coach. The librarian must learn to say “no” and not offer to take on work beyond the role of consultant and coach. The librarian teaches, encourages, and helps the collaborator to plan and problem solve. But, the librarian does not do the collaborator’s work for them. The collaborator’s role is to lead and complete their project. Even if a librarian is still learning, the librarian should expect that their role, time, and expertise be respected by the individual or group who is consulting with them;
  • Work to understand collaborators’ goals, unarticulated needs, and assumptions and double-check your understanding by communicating clearly regarding what you perceptive those goals, needs, and assumptions to be;
  • The librarian should be able to clearly indicate the type of assistance you are able to provide, not provide, and are able to communicate in a timely manner when an ask or need goes beyond your role or capacity;
  • Develop or encourage your collaborator to develop shared, asynchronous ways of tracking project progress — so that you both have a high-level view, a dashboard, of the project steps and status. Use a shared whiteboard, shared GoogleSheet, Trello board, or some shared place to keep track of project progress.
  • Find a trusted colleague or mentor to help you (librarian) reflect on whether you are overextending yourself beyond your role and how to reinforce communication regarding your role;
  • Have (or build) a referral network for parts of the request which are beyond your capacity;
  • Request feedback regarding your contributions.

Renegotiating the relationship also requires that the faculty member or group who is consulting with you or being coached fulfill their obligations, do the work, and be mindful of the value of your involvement. Working with them has a cost—it means that you are not doing the many other things on which you could be spending your time and expertise. It is also helpful when those coached share with the librarian the impact of the librarian’s work. In a typical reference interaction, a librarian might never know the long-term impact of their contribution.

Modeling good practice is helpful for others in their formation of healthy long-term relationships. The same dynamics of coaching will be expected of the collaborator, the faculty member or graduation students consulting with the librarian, when they begin a partnership with a PreK-12 educator.

Resources and Additional Reading

Bruns, Todd; Brantley, John Stephen; and Duffin, Kirstin, (2015). “Scholarly Communication Coaching: Liaison Librarians’ Shifting Roles” Faculty Research & Creative Activity. 99. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/lib_fac/99

Murphy, Sarah Anne. (2011). The Librarian As Information Consultant : Transforming Reference for the Information Age, American Library Association. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/vt/detail.action?docID=683305 [Not open access]

Senseney, Megan; Koehl, Eleanor Dickson; and Nay, Leann. (2019). Collaboration, Consultation, or Transaction: Modes of Team Research in Humanities Scholarship and Strategies for Library Engagement. College & Research Libraries 80(6):787-804. https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.80.6.787

Wilson, E. Michael (2013). The Role of Library Liaison as Consultant. Kentucky Libraries 77(1):14-19.


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Making Open Educational Resources with and for PreK12 Copyright © 2023 by Anita R. Walz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.